Maryland prosecutors need not tell defendants about the past dishonesty of the state’s witnesses before a guilty plea is entered, Maryland’s top court unanimously ruled Friday in upholding the drug possession conviction of a man whose main accuser had a record of lying and would later be convicted of police corruption.
The Court of Appeals said the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 Brady v. Maryland decision requiring prosecutors to share impeaching character evidence about their witnesses with the defense before trial does not apply to guilty pleas.
Maryland’s high court also cited the justices’ 2002 decision in United States v. Ruiz, which indicated that Brady’s impeachment disclosure requirement is limited to trials.
In its reported 7-0 decision, the Court of Appeals rejected Dale Byrd’s argument through counsel that prosecutors were obligated to tell him before his two guilty pleas that the officers who claimed to have seen him exchanging heroin for money – Daniel Hersl and Thomas Wilson – had been found by the Baltimore Police Department’s internal investigators to have made false statements in other instances.
“Ruiz clearly establishes that the right to impeachment evidence under Brady v. Maryland in all cases is exclusively a trial right,” Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera wrote for the high court. “Even assuming that the undisclosed misconduct information in this case were actually critical to petitioner’s (Byrd’s) case, it would still be fundamentally incapable of converting that trial right into a pretrial right.”
Assistant Maryland Public Defender Michael T. Torres, Byrd’s appellate attorney, said Friday that “we are disappointed in the outcome and are still reviewing the decision,” which includes the possibility of an appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Maryland attorney general’s office declined to comment on the court’s decision.
Byrd pleaded guilty on March 11, 2011, to possession of heroin with intent to distribute in two separate cases. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, with all but four years suspended, and three years’ probation.
Byrd’s plea, in Baltimore City Circuit Court, followed the prosecution’s proffer that police officers had seen him exchanging money for drugs on the porch of a vacant Baltimore house in March 2010 and then again five months later.
Hersl, who swore out the statement of charges against Byrd, was a witness to the first incident, while Wilson was a witness to the second.
Hersl was later convicted of racketeering and robbery for his actions while part of the Baltimore Police Department’s disgraced Gun Trace Task Force. Wilson was later found to have committed misconduct, according to a Baltimore Sun article cited in the Court of Appeals’ decision.
Byrd appealed to the intermediate Court of Special Appeals, saying he would not have pleaded guilty if the prosecution had disclosed the checkered pasts of the state’s police witnesses and not let their incriminating statements stand.
But the Court of Special Appeals held in a reported 3-0 decision last year that, “because the prosecutor had no duty to divulge such impeaching evidence, there is no basis for the contention that the prosecutor ‘implicitly’ vouched for the honesty of either Wilson or Hersl.”
Byrd then sought review by the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Dale K. Byrd v. State of Maryland, No. 4 September Term 2020.